Posts Tagged ‘Preaching’
Part 3: What the Church Needs. Now.
We've been taking the last Sunday of each month the past couple of months to visit other churches in our area. This, in conjunction with our travels to preach in various churches, gives us the opportunity to see how the Lord is working in our part of the world.
It appears, from what we can tell, that God is working in one of two ways. On the one hand, there are struggling, dying, small churches dotting the land around us. They are congregations full of few generations (which is a nice way of saying that they are filled with older people who have never left the small town where they were born). There's nothing particularly fancy about these churches. They still have fellowship dinners–carry-in–and sing songs from a hymn book. They still do traditional things like read Scripture as a call to worship and clutter up the spirit of worship with strange meditations before communion and too many announcements.
Yet these churches plod on day after day. They turn over their preacher every couple of years and operate on significantly small budgets. But they are still here, alive, and contributing to the Kingdom of God, in some way, right where they are. They wield very little power in this world. Yet here they are still here–living, breathing, and worshiping.
On the other hand, there are what I call hip churches. They are large and have virtually cut themselves off from anything resembling tradition. Their preacher is young and doesn't own a suit. They are spread out over large areas and consume a lot of resources. Their buildings are new and ergonomic. Everything is a production. The music is loud and modern and has a lot to do with singing about how great our problems are in this world and how God is somehow greater if we just open our eyes and see. These churches wield a lot of power and influence in the world precisely because they are so large.
And they too are here. They press on every day and face problems that are proportional to their size. Every church has problems and really it's simply a matter of size that determines the nature of the problem and solutions. They have large budgets and I suppose this might be one of the problems they face: how do we keep people interested and the money flowing? They are, nevertheless, here and they, too, are contributing to the advancement of God's kingdom–sometimes in spite of themselves–but here they are: living, breathing, and worshiping.
In Mark 1, we have seen that Mark had something to say to the church about preaching and repentance. In this third post of my short series, I'd like to look briefly at what he says about power. Here's what John the baptist said, "After me comes the one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
If I hear him, and I think I do, he is saying something like this: the One who comes after me will not only come in power but he will also empower you. Now it could be that John was talking to the individuals in his audience that day and probably was, but it could also be, and I think it is more likely, that Mark has him speaking to us, the Church in every generation who reads this verse. After all, these words were recorded for us and we read them. Right? So I suspect that even though these words were uttered a long while ago by a preacher we would surely not listen to then any more than now, the words nevertheless mean something to us or at least should.
I also noticed this: John makes a connection between power, baptism, and the Spirit in verse 7-8 and then in verse 9-11 he makes another connection between power, crucifixion, and Jesus. Here's how I see this. Mark uses a word in verse 10 when Jesus is baptized that our Bible's have translated 'ripped' or 'torn.' There's nothing particularly fancy about this word in Greek. We sometimes transliterate it as 'schism.' The interesting thing about this word, though, is that Mark only uses it's verb form two times. Once, here in Mark 1:10 at Jesus' baptism and again in Mark 15:38–at Jesus' crucifixion: "The curtain in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom." So, if I hear Mark, and I think I do, he is saying there is a serious connection between this Jesus who comes in power, who baptizes us in the Holy Spirit, and his crucifixion.
The crucifixion and the necessary resurrection are both a part of this powerful arrival of the Spirit of power.
Here's my point: this is what John the baptist preached. Look what Mark wrote: And this was his message. Or: And he was (continually) preaching saying. He was constantly preaching to whoever would listen that someone was coming who would do things in power of the Spirit. This echos the Older Testament prophets who made similar statements. In particular Zechariah who said, "This is the Word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: 'Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,' says the Lord Almighty." (4:6). Now John says that this Spirit is the power of Jesus and that it was beginning with the arrival of Jesus and that it's full manifestation was to be realized at his crucifixion and resurrection. This is why he makes the connection between Jesus' baptism and his crucifixion.
This is what the prophets preached. John was another in that long line of Israelite prophets who announced this powerful arrival. Paul the apostle would later make this connection too when he wrote to the church at Corinth: "For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power" (1 Corinthians 4:20). The kingdom is about power. The prophets said it. John clarified it. Jesus brought it. Paul preached it. The Spirit is it. Here it is: the power of the church is the presence of the Holy Spirit.
It just so happens that this morning I listened to a rather old lecture by Professor NT Wright from 2012. In this lecture, he made something of a similar point as I am making here. He said:
"The way God rescues people from sin and death is by overthrowing all the powers that held them captive. And the way he does that is not with superior firepower of the same kind, but with a different sort of power altogether…The power that is let loose transformatively in the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And it will continue to work until every tongue confess and every knee bow."–NT Wright, How God Became King: Why We've All Misunderstood the Gospels (my emphasis)
So what am I saying? And how does all this tie together? What does visiting churches around the area where I live come into play here? What does the church need? Now? Well, I think it's rather simple, isn't it? The church needs prophets who will proclaim this message of the power of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. John didn't come in any fancy way. He came as a prophet of old, like Elijah. He used words that reminded us of Zechariah and Isaiah (or quoted them outright). He's the one prophesied by Malachi. He preached a message that pointed unalterably to Jesus–the one who came with power and the Spirit.
John didn't come doing miracles. John didn't come from a high class of people. He didn't stand in the temple. He didn't write books or anything like that. He simply, continually, preached the good news, the Gospel, that God was beginning to do what he had promised he was going to do: return to his temple and set all people free from the bonds of captivity and exile. There had been 400 years of silence, sin, and exile in Israel–490 years said Daniel–and this is what God did: He sent a prophet to proclaim his Good News. Nothing more. Nothing less. He sent a preacher to preach, prepare, and proclaim in power the coming of Jesus.
John came along and simply said: you want to be free? The power to set you free is in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
That is power!
I think this is what the church needs now. We live in desperate times, don't we? People are desperate for hope and healing and many churches and christians do little more than point to a political candidate and say 'vote for her or him.' Churches keep plodding along as they always have–but with remarkably little demonstration of the Spirit's power. Some are old and dying and plodding along. Some are new and living and plodding along. But where is the Word of God? Where are the prophets? Where is the Spirit? Where is the Power? We will get things done not by strength and might but by the Spirit of God. How are we, as the prophets of God, manifesting this Spirit of power, the Spirit of God here, among ourselves and in the world in general?
Or is the church devoid of prophets?
How can we get out of the way so that the Spirit's power is evident among us?
How can we preach in such a way that when we are finished people will know that Jesus is arriving? How can we preach with such power that people know who empowers us?
What the church needs right now is the sort of prophets who will stand up, like John did, and take their place among the long history of Israelite prophets who proclaimed God's enduring message of hope that in Jesus God is becoming King of this world for all people and that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue will confess.
So here's a further point: it makes no difference if the church is small and dying or if the church is large and living. The same power is available to both and ought to be manifest in and among both. The same Holy Spirit of Jesus is available to the dying church as the living church. And perhaps if more dying churches recognized this there would be less dying churches. And if the living churches recognized this perhaps their fruit would be even greater.
Most of what we preach in the church is superfluous. Seriously. What we need in the church is prophets. Prophets who stand up and proclaim the unfiltered, unadulterated, Word of God. I'm tired of fluff. How are we, as the church, demonstrating the power of the Spirit of God among us?
I want power. Let's hear the prophets speak and so say with the congregations of generations gone by: Maranatha! Come Holy Spirit!
Or maybe our prophets will speak so powerfully, as a demonstration of the Spirit, that the Spirit will simply come among us, shake the place where we are meeting, and enable more of us to go forth and proclaim the Good News that Jesus is King!
Part 2 of 3: What the Church Needs to be Preaching. Now.
In part one of this short series of posts, I talked about what I think the church needs to be doing now, namely, preparing the way for the coming of Jesus. By preparing the way, I mean: calling people to repentance. It may seem simple and, perhaps, a wee bit out of sync with all the fancy things that churches are told they ought to be doing, but it seems to me that everyone needs to repent–including the church. In fact, the apostle Peter himself wrote: "The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9). Funny that Peter said this to the Church!
My point is, hopefully clearly, that there is always room for repentance and that perhaps this ought to form more our core message even today.
So there's that. John preached repentance. Jesus preached it. Paul preached it. Peter preached it. Clearly this is an important aspect of our preaching. But there's also another important part of our preaching that I want to explore in this short post. It has to do with the Kingdom.
For whatever reason, I can count on my one hand the number of sermons I have heard about the Kingdom in the local church. One sermon stands out because I was still in college at the time and didn't understand a single word the preacher preached. He preached from Matthew 13 and used Robert Farrar Capon's book The Parables of the Kingdom and its rather complicated (at the time for me) text to expound upon what Jesus was saying about the Kingdom. To this day I'm not sure I understand what the preacher said that Sunday or what Capon wrote in his book.
Scott McKnight has done a superior job teaching us about the Kingdom. His book Kingdom Conspiracy was a shockingly devastating book that nails it from the first page to the last. I took a lot from the book. Here's one thing McKnight wrote:
Kingdom mission flows from the kingdom story, and that story focuses on on God at work in history as God brings that history to its focal point in Jesus as King. That kingdom story, then, focuses on God as King through King Jesus. That story counters all other stories, especially stories that make humans kings and queens and thereby become stories of idolatry. […] This kingdom story tells the story of a kingdom; kingdom is a people, and that means kingdom mission is about forming the people of God. That is, the kingdom mission forms a kingdom people and that kingdom people in the present world is the church. This means kingdom mission is all about forming and enhancing local churches as expressions of the kingdom of God in this world. Which leads us back to a central reality of kingdom theology: there is no kingdom without a King. (123)
He says on the next page, which also happens to be the first page of chapter 8 "The King of the Kingdom", this: "Indeed, God is king, but God rules through his Son, the Messiah, the Lord, King Jesus." (125)
A little later he writes, "This ideal-king psalm [Psalm 72] leads to one of the most important observations about kings and kingdoms: kings determine what their kingdoms are like" (his emphasis, 128).
There is so much more I'd love to share, but this is a short post and you really should get your own copy of the book. But here's the point, from Mark 1:1: "The beginning of the Gospel about Jesus the Messiah." He then goes on to tell the story of Jesus: the things Jesus said, the things Jesus did, the places Jesus visited, the people Jesus interacted with, and the things Jesus preached. So, from the get go of Mark's Gospel, we, the readers, know that this is the Gospel (good news) about Jesus.
A few verses later, Mark tells us that John the baptist had been put in prison and that Jesus picked up where John left off. Mark wrote, "Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the Gospel of God. 'The time has come,' he said, 'the Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the Gospel'" (Mark 1:14-15). Well this is certainly interesting isn't it? Mark says the Gospel is about Jesus, the Messiah. Then John prepared the way for this Gospel to be preached. Then Jesus came on the scene preaching this same Gospel. And Mark uses the same word in all three places: 1:1, 14, and 15 all contain the word 'gospel' (or, as some translations say, 'good news.')
What are we to make of this? Well, if I may put a very sharp point on this, I will say: Jesus went around preaching…himself. The good news, or Gospel, is Jesus. Jesus preached that the kingdom of God was 'near' (interestingly, after he started preaching) and that because of this proximity, we ought to…wait for it…repent and believe the gospel! This is remarkable, isn't it?
Now, I think about this. The content of the Gospel is Jesus (of course this is fleshed out for us in several places; 1 Corinthians 15 comes to mind). It's what Jesus preached–and somehow this good news about Jesus, this Gospel, is related to this Kingdom of God he also proclaimed as near. We need to think about how, in our pulpits, we are going to make this connection both central and clear. We need to be telling a different story from our pulpits. We need to be constructing a different mission in our churches. We need to be preaching a different kingdom in our congregations. We need to be assuring the church and the not-church that Jesus is king, has received all authority in heaven and earth, and will be returning to claim his rightful place as King of this world.
We need to talk about the good news that Jesus is King. That Jesus rules.
In short: we need to be talking an awfully, significantly, larger amount about Jesus. We need to talk about the things Jesus did: he did miracles, he showed compassion, he demonstrated God's mercy, he loved unconditionally. And we need to talk about these things not as mere object lessons for how we can live better lives, but for the sake of themselves, for the sake of Jesus. In other words, these are the things Jesus did that characterize the Kingdom he said was near! Are we talking about them in our churches? Why do they matter? Why did Jesus do them? What do they signify or point to? What do they tell us about Jesus?
We need to talk about the things Jesus said. What did he say about himself? What did he say about the Kingdom? What did he say about humanity's need for repentance? What did he say about God's wrath, God's love, God's mercy, God's church, and the way of life he called us to? Jesus said his life was defined by the cross and resurrection. He told us that our way of life will be defined by taking up our cross, denying ourselves, and following him. Well, what are we saying about this life? What did Jesus say about the kingdoms of this world? What did he say about the end of exile, forgiveness of sins, and return to the Land? And again: we ought to talk about these things as part of the meta-narrative they are embedded in and not as if they were merely ways to help us live a better Americanized version of Christianity. We tell of the things Jesus said because Jesus said them. They are his words to us! We ought to listen to what he said. And we ought to preach them.
What story are we telling in the church? The world has all sorts of narratives out there floating around and many people are falling for them hook, line, sinker, and bobber. What story are we telling? Are we merely telling the story of mere salvation? Is it a mere join the club kind of thing? Or is it something greater, grander, better, bigger, badder, more magnificent and spectacular, and grandiose–and I'll run out of adjectives before I can run out of talking about the peculiar beauty and power that is the Kingdom of God Jesus was telling us about in his story. It's sad when our politicians speak more about Jesus than the church does. Jesus didn't call us to spend a lot of our efforts preaching theology–as important as that is–but he did tell us to spend a lot of time talking about himself. Jesus is the Way. Jesus is the Life. Jesus is living water. Jesus is the bread of Life. Jesus is truth. Jesus is the Resurrection. Jesus is I Am. That's who and what we ought to preach.
I wonder: are we selling people short by not telling them this story? It's a better story, isn't it? I'm not content with the stories of this world. I want a better story. I'm willing to bet there are other folks who feel the exact same way. So let's tell them the story of Jesus–for the sake of Jesus and nothing else. When people come to the church, they should hear the story of Jesus–for the sake of Jesus. I think Jesus is far less concerned about us leading 'good' lives here in America than he is about his kingdom being proclaimed and the good news about himself being heralded from our pulpits.
So the question remains: What ought the church to be preaching? Now? I think the answer is simple: Jesus.
Nothing more. Nothing less.
Part 1 of 3: What the Church Needs to be Doing. Now.
Been thinking about church. I do that a lot for some reason. It's not like I have anything else to do with my time. (/sarcasm). The truth is, I'm fairly heavily involved with my local church through helping lead worship (singing, playing guitar, reading Scripture), teaching a Bible school class, and teaching at a small, local Bible College. I also do pulpit supply whenever I can, wherever I can. I wish every day was Sunday, sometimes.
I have a love/hate relationship with the church. I have spent my entire life married to the church. It has seen my best days (baptism, wedding) and my worst days (termination, heartbreak). I am almost 46 and the church has never not been a part of my life in some way, some shape, or other. So this post isn't about any church in particular, it's about the church in general. It's a short sermon sans a pulpit.
Here's the first of three things the church ought to consider when the church considers its appearance and mission to the world. All three will be drawn from Mark's Gospel, chapter 1.
First, preparing the way. The last thing faithful Israelites heard from the prophets before a what must have been a dreadfully long 400 year silence, was this: "I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me…I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes" (Malachi 3:1, 4:5). There's a lot more to Malachi's thoughts, but this is where Mark's Gospel begins. That is, he begins by telling his readers that this is what the prophet(s) said, and this is what happened, "And so John the baptist appeared in the wilderness" (Mark 1:4a).
I doubt seriously this is what people had in mind. Maybe they expected some flashbang or shock and awe. Maybe they thought about fire from heaven or miracles galore. Maybe they thought and end to the Roman occupation with a giant military coup. Yet there was John. Preaching a "baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." So, it seems, what Mark is telling us is this: the way John prepared the way for the Lord's arrival, the way he prepared people for the appearance of the Lord in his temple, was this: Take personal inventory of your sin and repent. Imagine that such a task–preparing the way of the Lord–could be accomplished with such an unflashy medium. Preaching: repentance.
This is decidedly not how we prepare the way of the Lord in the church. Instead we draw them in with fidgets and gadgets and gimmicks. And all churches do it. To an extent, some churches even make repentance a gimmick. John did nothing fancy. He simply went out and preached that people needed to repent. Interestingly enough, when Jesus took up the mantle of gospeling after John was put in prison, he did the same thing: "The time has come. The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news" (Mark 1:15). John didn't even draw people in with supernatural power. He went as far away from them as he could in fact–the wilderness. He didn't hang out at all the swank places eating rich fair–he simply at locusts. He didn't look particularly fashionable–he wore scratchy camel hair and a belt. Yet people went to him. And listened. And were baptized by him.
Maybe there is something to what John was doing? Maybe the Lord knew what he was doing? Maybe we need to imitate John? Maybe part of our preaching objectives ought to be calling people to repentance from their sin?
How is it that such a simple message was able to prepare a generation of people for the arrival of the Lord in his temple? And why don't we do more of this in our churches? I mean, isn't the Lord going to return someday to claim his bride? Maybe the best message that the church can preach to the world and to the church is that they and we need to repent.
I've been thinking about it. There's a lot to do in the church in America, here in the last days. Maybe it is time for the church to stop pushing a gospel of America and to start preaching repentance again. It's just a thought. Maybe it is time for the church to abandon all the tricks and gimmicks and all the sermon series' about How a Good American Can Have a Happy Outlook on Life.
Maybe it's time for real power in our pulpits again.
I saw the other day in my Twitter feed where someone quoted a certain political candidate as saying if he is elected to the presidency Christians will have power in this country. Everyone knows that such statements are merely populist in nature, but if it has even a thread of truth in it, the church ought to be afraid. The church doesn't need power (and I'll demonstrate this in a future post). The church needs prophets. The power will come, but not from politicians. This is all another post. In the second post, I'll write about preaching the Kingdom.
Read: Matthew 4; Daniel 7; Isaiah 52-53; Romans 10
"Nowhere in scripture is it set out more clearly that the kingdom of the one true God stands over against the kingdoms of the world, judging them, calling them to account, condemning them, and vindicating God's people" than in the Book of Daniel. (NT Wright, Simply Jesus, 158)
After Jesus is baptized, he goes out into the 'wilderness to be tempted by the devil' (4:1). Jesus stands his ground by remembering Scripture. This is probably something I suppose we all ought to do instead of relying on all the tricks and methods that modern pulpiteers created and package and encourage us to practice. But I digress.
But maybe I do not. You see, here's what I see. I see Jesus from the very beginning of his ministry going about with the Word of God on his lips, in his mouth, rolling off his tongue to whoever would listen and perhaps to some who would not listen willingly. I'm sure the devil who tempted Jesus in the wilderness was not happy to hear the word of God thrown into his face. Remember when he tempted Adam and Eve? They too hurled Scripture back to the devil, but something went wrong and they gave in to the temptation to sin anyhow.
I wonder how Jesus succeeded where they failed? I wonder if anyone of us noticed that Jesus succeeded where they failed? That third temptation always bowls me over too, "Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, 'All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.'" (4:8-9). Then we note, again flashing forward to the end of the book, that Jesus gets these kingdoms anyhow doesn't he? All authority in heaven and earth, he says, has been given to Me.
Let me get back to that part where Jesus quotes Scripture because this is the part that I find most instructional. Jesus knew the Scripture. He quoted Scripture. In my mind, then, I think what Jesus is saying is that this battle he was fighting against the temptations of the devil was theological. It was about far more than simply not doing something that the devil thought would be sinful or otherwise. It was about honoring the Lord God who gave the Scripture in the first place. Jesus, in quoting the Scripture in the face of temptation, is not just 'warding off the devil.' No. He's honoring God first in his life and trusting that it is God's order of things that matters and that the devil's order of things matters not.
Like Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael: We know our God will protect us, but even if he doesn't, know this: we will not bow down and worship your idol.
But we do not live like that, mostly. I know my own tendency is to not trust the Word of God first–even though I know it fairly well. I'm often like Adam and Eve: I quote it well and then rush right into the devil's hands. Ultimately, Jesus trusted God and was not about to usurp God's place for his own pleasure which is exactly what Adam and Eve. Trusting God's Word means, I think, trusting that the devil will leave on his own when he sees that we mean to practice what we are quoting back to him. It doesn't mean he will not be back later; he will. But it does mean for now there is a victory found not in winning, but in trusting God.
Jesus trusted that God's Word was sufficient. It was this very paradigm of ministry and preaching that Jesus practiced. We see it from the very beginning: in battles with the enemy, he trusted the Word of God. When preaching the kingdom of God, he spoke the word of God (4:17). When he went teaching throughout Galilee, 'proclaiming the Gospel of the kingdom', he preached the Word of God (4:23). His preaching of the Kingdom and healing of people in cooperation with his preaching told us what the Kingdom is about: It's about God's Word finally being fulfilled among the people.
There's nothing fancy about it. No special techniques involved. He simply went about doing the things that the Word taught: resisting temptation, preaching the kingdom, healing the broken people of the world. Jesus is telling us: this is what the Kingdom of God looks like.
What's that mean for us at Advent in 2015? It means that maybe Jesus ought to be our paradigm for doing the work of ministry. But even more important that that, is, I think, what Jesus thinks the Kingdom of God is about. First, those who belong to it will, inevitably, face the same obstructions that Jesus faced from the satan. We will be tempted to think that the kingdom is about his ideas instead of God's ideas. We must resist him with the word of God and constantly remind ourselves or be reminded, what God's kingdom looks like–a Scriptural picture. The kingdom is shaped by God's word, not by our vision of it.
Second, the Kingdom of God will reach into unlikely places in this world. Jesus began his Kingdom preaching in 'Galilee of the Gentiles'…something terribly dangerous. It is a dangerous thing to announce to our congregations that it is imperative that we take the kingdom into places people consider unlikely. This might mean that we are sharing the Gospel, too, with unlikely people. At Advent, how unlikely was it that God himself came down and tabernacled among us? Yeah. That's the kind of unlikely I'm talking about.
Third, the Kingdom of God partners with unlikely people to get into the hearts and hands of people. We think more highly of ourselves than we ought. We think some people simply cannot be partners with Jesus. But this is the key: we are not calling people to follow me, or you, or the church, or the religion. Jesus called people unto himself: "Follow me!" he said. The key of our kingdom message is that we are inviting people to follow Jesus. Nothing else. Jesus called strange people, fishermen. Who calls fishermen to the climactic act of God in his world? Jesus. Who calls people like you and me? Jesus. We should try not to think so highly of ourselves.
Fourth, the Kingdom of God reaches into the lives of broken people in this world. Jesus did two things. He proclaimed; he healed. This is the essence of the kingdom: bringing new life to the broken people of this world. And Jesus' fame spread throughout all Syria. I see a lot of 'ministries' who do a lot of stuff, but the only people who gain any fame are those miracle workers. It's not Jesus. Here, it was Jesus whose fame spread. In our Kingdom preaching, the only one who should be noticed, or gain fame, or be exalted is Jesus.
In our kingdom work, whatever we do, we do it for the fame of Jesus. Always. Only. Jesus.
God's Love Compels Us is a collection of sermons based on the text of 2 Corinthians 4-5 (4 sermons), Psalm 22 (1 sermon), and two other topical sermons written by well educated men who are preachers or scholars or missionaries. The first three sermons are by D.A. Carson (who also edited the book), David Platt, and John Piper. The rest of the sermons were written by gentlemen I've never heard of before, but hearing their stories and ideas was refreshing and was welcome. I especially enjoyed the contributions written by Michael Oh and Mack Stiles.
The first four sermons (each sermon makes up a chapter for a total of 7 chapters) are wholly exegetical sermons and follow the text being expounded closely. Two of the last three sermons are topical. Michael Oh's contribution is an exposition of Psalm 22. I would expect nothing else from a Don Carson book. The book is dense and packed with deep theological thoughts and ideas which flow from a deeply held Reformed theology. There is not a lot of nuance to the sermons. They are fairly straightforward propositional and exegetical sermons.
The work focuses primarily on the issue of missions work and why we do it and perhaps to a lesser extent how we do it. There's a lot of emphasis on where we do missions work also.
I have but a couple of thoughts.
There are a lot of stories about missionaries from days gone by who did the hard work of taking the Gospel to strange and exotic locations–like CT Studd who went to China or Hudson Taylor who did the same. And even though I've heard these stories hundreds of times in books and sermons it is still good to hear them afresh, maybe from a different angle. There are a lot of statistics about how many people live in the world and how many are unsaved ("If Jesus did rise from the dead, then it is the height of arrogance to sit quietly by while 597 million Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and Sikhs in North India go to hell.", 26*, sermon by David Platt. I'm not sure who among us is sitting around arrogantly while this happens, but I suppose a little rhetorical hyperbole is the way preachers work.) You will also find in this book a lot of the standard Reformed doctrines of salvation. This is not a bad thing in and of itself (even if I don't happen to buy all of the propositions), but it seems to me there is so much more worth exploring that perhaps the preachers should have given some thought to varying the messages. In other words, there is a tremendous amount of repetition in the book. And as good as salvation is, I am inclined to think that the apostle Paul, who wrote the letter a number of these sermons are based upon, had a little more in mind when he was writing than mere formulations of theological salvation propositions.
For example, what about the kingdom of God? I was able to find all of four references to the Kingdom of God in the entire book. This was disappointing if it is true that we 'represent the foreign power of the kingdom of God' (Stiles, chapter 4). I wish this idea had been explored a little more within the context of God's love compelling us to missionary work.
We also hear a lot about the exotic locations around the world where there is a serious deficiency of Gospel proclamation and belief. Yes. It is true there are a lot of Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus without the Gospel in the Middle East, India, and Asia. What we don't hear a lot about in this book is the deficits here in America. If we are looking for depth of faith as opposed to width of belief then maybe those who are Christians in the Middle East or India or Asia or Africa ought to be sending missionaries to the United States instead of the other way around. It's just a thought, but it seems to me that, to a certain extent, this book is too well educated to stir up the common American Christian to do much. Indeed, it is based on a pre-conference conference on world mission 'designed especially, though not exclusively, for students' in 'April 2013' (from the preface).
Is this a book that will stir up the church in general? Is the audience preachers who will read it? Students who will study it for a cross-cultural evangelism class in undergraduate school? This is a book that needs to be in the hands of the church in general so I wonder if the authors are, to a sad extent, preaching to the choir?
Carson writes in the preface that world mission is no longer "'from the West to the rest,' but more like 'from everywhere to everywhere..'" And this is my point. Still, the book doesn't lay much emphasis on this 'everywhereness' to include the USA. I well understand the book's intention, but this seems to me a deficiency. If it is true that, as Carson writes, there are 'thousands of unreached people groups' and 'larger populations where knowledge of Scripture is desperately thin' and places where 'nominalism or syncretism reigns supreme' and 'the gospel is poorly understood and widely disbelieved' then it seems to me someone ought to have addressed this concern directly here in the USA where all of this is true too. This is my opinion. I didn't edit or write the book. I just think that what he is describing is, in fact, America. Look around! The famine is here in America too.
Another important aspect of the book is something that Stiles said in chapter four, something I have not heard any other preacher say in the days since our world in America changed: "We were convinced that the response of the church to the events of 9/11 must not be military, but missionary. So we moved when the home sold" (p 53). This is absolutely overwhelming! And what Stiles did was move to the Middle East. I don't think I have read a single line like this in all the books I have read since 9/11/01, by any author, from any denomination. I don't think I've heard a single preacher say this. Why? This quote alone should be preached and is worth the price of the book.
I wish this had been said more by preachers. I'm convinced that it is the only way anything is going to happen even now so many years removed from that event. I think what's happening, though, is that the church is ceding more and more of this prerogative to our government. It's not just in matters of international diplomacy either. It's all around us as churches lose ground in our cities and states and small towns and governments, big and little, local, state, and federal gain ground. It's sad, really, that this Kingdom to which we belong and which we are gives so much ground. The gates of hell shall not prevail, said Jesus. Hmm.
A book on missions is, thus, important and necessary for here in America too.
Finally, a disappointment. There is not a single contribution by a woman in the book. Yes, it is edited by Kathleen Nielson and she gets some props in the preface written by Carson. But she doesn't even get a line on a dedication page. I'm terribly disappointed that we get to hear from zero of the outstanding female voices in the evangelical church–voices that would certainly add depth and perspective to the idea of world missions. I wish the editors and publisher would have given this more thought and tried to include at least one female voice.
When it's all said and done, I think this is a helpful book. I'm not enamored with the all of the writing (mostly because I've read enough of Carson's work that he is predictable at this point and I'm not really a fan of Piper). Hearing from some fresh voices was a good thing for this book (Oh, Stiles, and Um were especially welcome voices) and I hope to hear some more from these preachers in the future.
The book has a helpful page at the end where we learn more of the biographical information about the authors–their education, family life, and educational background. There is a very helpful index and another Scripture index that I found especially useful. On my ePub version everything is hyperlinked which I love! I was also able to highlight and add notes which again I love. Notes are at the end of each chapter which is better than at the end of the book.
I will leave this review with a quote from the book that I found to be especially fruitful and which, in my opinion, needs to be offered more and more by preachers in America. To this end, it is my hope that preachers who read this book will be challenged to preach the Gospel–in season and out of season, to their congregations–in order that this Kingdom to which we belong, that this God who loves us so, will be plainly evident to the world and so that once again the church will start pushing back the gates of hell:
Consider Luke 14:13-14…Note that, in context, Jesus is primarily concerned not with giving guidelines for how to throw a party, but with challenging the give-to-get economy under which the Pharisees are operating. They throw parties and invite honorable guests in order to be invited to parties thrown by honorable guests. Jesus is suggesting that they radically flip this on its head. He is making the point that, if you know the unrepayable, nonmercenary nature of God's grace, it is borne out in your actions: you engage in one-way giving, being radically generous with your time, money, and relational capital. In other words, those who have received a gift that they can never repay are those who have the resources to give away gifts that can never be repaid. (101)
Yep. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase God's Love Compels Us Amazon (Kindle, $9.59) CBD ($11.49) Crossway ($14.99)
- Author: D.A. Carson & Kathleen Nielson
- Publisher: Crossway
- Pages: 126
- Year: 2015
- Audience:Pastors, preachers, Christians, missionaries, students
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided a free reader's copy courtesy of Crossway via the Beyond the Book Blogger program
- *My page numbers are based on the ePub version I downloaded for my NOOK reader. Page numbers may or may not correspond to print versions or Kindle locations.
The other day I made an announcement on my Facebook page about some exciting things happening in my professional and personal life. The announcement involves the church and a Bible College where I will be doing some teaching next year. A friend of mine later commented that my willingness to 'trust in spiritual institutions gives me hope.'
That statement gave me hope.
I'm not sure why I haven't given up entirely on the church. I spent the better part of the first half of my life drowning in church culture. I was an active prodigal as a teenager. As a younger man I spent time as an altar boy in a small Methodist church. I was baptized. Sanctified. Left home at barely 21 for Bible College. Graduated four years later, ordained, and began preaching at my first church at the ripe age of 25. From there it was all down hill.
My first church ministry, in West Virginia, lasted a little more than a year. I could not come close to managing local Appalachian church politics at that age. I made some critical relationship mistakes and they turned on me faster than vultures on a carcass. I moved back home with my wife and son and took a job in a Burger King as a manager and later as a laborer in a shop my dad managed. It was dirty, filthy, and back-breaking work, but I did it with a gusto unmatched by anyone else in the shop. All the while I attended my home church and became involved to the extent that I could in the ministry there–teaching, preaching occasionally, and singing in the choir.
Then came an opportunity to preach again–in West Virginia. I jumped at the opportunity and the church seemed like a perfect fit: I was close to my family and my wife's family, there was strong leadership, the congregation was fairly good sized, and they had little debt. I could be involved with other preachers in the area who shared my theological background. Once again I made some critical errors in judgment–thinking that the things that mattered most mattered most and misunderstanding the delicate balance between personal relationships and leadership. After about two and half years I was out again. It was a difficult choice, but since I was leaving one church and entering directly into another ministry the time gap wasn't as painful as the first ministry had been–that is, that sense of despair that comes from not knowing where or when or if I would preach again.
Still, there were a lot of hurt feelings on the way out of the church. Some of those relationships have not, to this day, been healed. I have wept over that fact, but this side of the new heavens and new earth, I suspect they will remain broken.
So I went to my third church (technically, my fifth, but I'm not reckoning the two youth ministry positions I held while in Bible College) in the fall of 1999 and there I would remain for nearly 10 years. I had finally found my place to belong and be and become. Immediately upon moving to the area we found a church poised for growth. I met a childhood friend who, along with her husband and sons, lived in the area and didn't have a church. The church had a good base of young people who were eager for change and ready to support the work. The building was paid for. I was ready. Surely this was the providence of God finally leading me to the place he wanted me to be, a place I could be used, a place where I could raise my family.
That was in 1999. Things rolled on from bad to worse as the true colors of the church began to bleed through the veneer. Within the first year, two of our young families had decided to leave and enter the ministry. Within two years, I had no elders. Within three years, due to a large township sewer project, the church was $70,000 in debt. But we pressed on as best we could and God was faithful. He provided an abundance of offerings and we saw some growth in our membership–even though quite a few had come and gone for a variety of reasons. Still, our honeymoon lasted barely a year.
In 2008 my wife and I decided it was time to buy our first house. We wanted to put down roots in the community. Our children were by now getting older and we wanted to think about them being near friends and we also were thinking that our long term plans did not involve living in a 100 year old parsonage for the rest of our lives. We took the plunge. The church supported our decision and adjusted my salary accordingly and voted 100% to approve the budget for the next year.
In 2009, less than a year after we bought our 'dream' house, and nearly 10 years into the ministry, I was informed on a late July Saturday morning that I was being given two choices. The first choice was to resign immediately and receive six week's salary. This was a salary that had been reduced by 20% earlier in the spring. The other option was to refuse to resign, be fired immediately, and receive one week's worth of vacation pay. I was assured by one of the trustees who was used during this time that 'It was nothing personal.'
Here it is 5 years later. I'm no longer in ministry, at least not in the paid, professional sense. I'm no hero, but despite all of this (and there is much more besides), I still belong to the church. I still worship with the church. Soon I will be serving in the church again and soon after that I will be working in a parachurch organization. I gave my friend hope, and yet I'm not sure I even understand why I haven't given up on the church. Still I think I have a hint at why.
It's very simply that of all the horrible experiences I have had in churches, and of all the different ways I have managed to embarrass the church, my home church has never once given up on me. They have invited me back to preach. They have let me teach. They have let me sing. They have supported my family when we were unbelievably in a bad way. And anytime that I have gone into the church building since 1983 people have known me, spoken to me, and loved me. And here I am, five years after the latest debacle, and my home church has welcomed us back yet again.
I realize that the church in general has done a lot of things to screw up the world. I also realize that the church is made up of really horrible people at times–I have lived it. I realize that some Christians have a way of driving people away from the church with their judgmental attitudes, terrible theological ideas, and despicable social commentary, but I also know my own experience is this: the Church has loved me, welcomed me, and done everything they could to support me. I've made a lot of poor choices and I've done my share of embarrassing things, but there is at least one church in the world where I will always be able to show my face and know that someone will love me.
I suppose what is amazing is not so much that I haven't given up on the church as much as that the church hasn't given up on me. And I think by extension this means that neither has Jesus.
I am a Christian. I am a preacher–I just don't actually have a pulpit right now or a church or a Word from the Lord. It's not always easy–being a Christian, that is. I'm not always honest–which means that sometimes I am a hypocrite. I am not a strong-always-faithful-kind of guy. I am a weak-my-grace-is-sufficient-for-you-kind of Christian. I have to be because otherwise I would have nothing. I've learned that I cannot trust myself no matter how much effort I exert. I am far too easily amused and far too easily distracted.
It's been about five and a half years since I was removed from the pulpit of the church I served nearly 10 years.
There's a large part of me that is glad Mark Driscoll quit Mars Hill. It's about as large as the part of me that was glad when Rob Bell quit the other Mars Hill. Here's why. Aside from a small blip every now and again, I don't have to hear about Mars Hill, Rob Bell, and some of the silly things he used to say in his efforts to be relevant or controversial or emergent or whatever his shtick of the week was. I'm hoping the same results occur now that Mark Driscoll has quit Mars Hill, Seattle. Frankly, I am hopeful he will just go away and live off the fat of the money he made during his time in Seattle for a little while, learn some humility, repent of his sins, and return someday to be used by the Lord.
This is what I genuinely hope for him. I hope he will start again. Maybe I hope that because I hope maybe someday also to start again. The desert can be an arid place.
I should be clearer about why I'm writing this because someone might misunderstand me and think that this is about a personal animosity or personal dislike or that I'm just another blogger looking for google-love or whatever. I'm not. Really, I don't care. My real issue is that what the church really needs is for the celebrity preacher to just go away. Seriously. Just. Go. Away. Stop trying to go nationwide. Stop trying to make the nation your parish. Stop trying to dominate the airwaves with your sermons. Stop trying to take over the world of publishing with your books. Be content with your small parish or congregation and work in the field the Lord gives you. Make disciples. Preach the Word in season and out of season. Do the work of an evangelist. Don't be afraid to be small and unnoticed outside your community.
Stop trying to be a celebrity.
This is the inevitable result of one preacher trying to take faith nationwide–a task I'm not even sure Jesus tried to do. "I was sent to the lost sheep of Israel" I recall him saying and while his eventual goal and result is 'all authority in heaven and earth' belonging to himself, I think it is safe to say that Jesus stayed with his mission to work in the fields God had called him to and he then entrusted others to carry on his work. He had other sheep, but he trusted that others would be faithful and bring them in to the fold.
An example from Driscoll himself is a book I have sitting on a shelf right next to me where I'm typing. I have owned this book since it was published in 2010. It's the only Mark Driscoll book I own or will ever own. And here's the kicker, I've never even read it. I haven't even inscribed my name on the inside of the cover, near the spine, as I do with all my books. I'm not even sure why it is this close to where I am studying. I have no use for it precisely because on the cover it says, "What Christians Should Believe." I have no use for the word should. (I think this book was a book club choice once and it came before I responded to the card. I'm not sure why I own it.) But the point is this: who is Mark Driscoll to tell anyone what they should believe? Who am I to tell anyone what they should believe? Who is any Christian to make such nationwide, worldwide claims about faith in Jesus? (My point here is that I'm not defending Driscoll or excusing him personally. That is, I'm not necessarily a fan, but he's a brother in Christ and a companion in preaching.)
It's my opinion that Driscoll simply got too big for his britches. But he's only one example of many who could be pointed to. Many, many of these celebrity preachers end up all the same so I don't think Driscoll is any worse or any better than any other celebrity preacher who starts off with good intentions, is blessed by the Lord, allows it to go to his head, creates a scandal, resigns in humiliation, and goes away. I am hopeful, frankly, that Driscoll stays away. I hope he learns something from his sins. I hope the Lord restores him someday and he finds a way to start preaching the Gospel again.
I am happy that another celebrity preacher has quit. I'm not happy about the way it happened and I think there are a lot of bloggers and celebrity christian writers who will have to answer some day for the things they said about Mark. I'm glad Mark is no longer at Mars Hill because I happen to think he has more to offer and I do not believe for a minute that Jesus is finished with him; I hope he's not. I hope Mark comes back full of humility, full of grace, full of mercy, full of love, and full of gratitude for what God gave him for so many years.
I hope that because I hope that for myself too.
I can feel this way because I am a preacher too and I understand what it means to lose a pulpit, to lose God's trust, to have your faith shaken. To be sure, I was no celebrity preacher. I was not famous and never will be, but there is a part of me that understands what happens when a preacher forgets to depend upon the Lord and starts depending upon his own ability or prowess or popularity or skill. It is easy to forget the Lord in the pulpit even though the words are as holy and gospel infused as the Scriptures themselves. Sometimes preachers forget who they are and what they are called to do because the task at hand is so vital and eventually it ends up going to their heads that maybe, just maybe, the Lord is using them somehow in his scheme.
And maybe it's the Lord's intention to give them time to remember. Mark Driscoll might never remember. I pray he does.
Many are rejoicing over Driscoll's resignation. I'm not one of them. I understand all too well this pain and shame; the loneliness he may well have to endure for a while. Perhaps now that he is gone those angry bloggers and writers and critics careers too will come to a screeching halt–maybe now they won't have so much cannon fodder, maybe now the Lord can rebuke them too. Maybe they too can give up their dream of being nationwide and just go away. Maybe now that their whipping boy is gone, they can shut up and stop bringing an even worse shame to the body of Christ with their hyper-critical and hateful spirits.
We all have to learn. We all have to remember. Sadly some of us have to do these things are a far bigger stage than others which is exactly why we need less celebrity preachers. Leave the grand stage to Jesus. Exalt him; not yourself.
And come back faithful.
Title: Giving Blood
Author: Leonard Sweet
Pages: 368 (I read an e-book version on my Nook reader. My page numbers may be a bit different. I apologize in advance for any troubles this may cause.)
[Disclaimer: I was provided with a reader's copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for my fair and unbiased review. I am happy to provide that very thing in the following blog post.]
I once preached a sermon about the Bible. I think it might have been from John's Gospel, but I don't really remember. The sermon had something to do with the Scripture, the Bible, the Word of God–however you want to refer to it, that was the topic. It might have been about Jesus. I might have even trekked into the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah and wrestled a bit with his idea that in his mouth the Word of God tasted like honey, but in his gut it was turning him inside out, upside down, and sending him scurrying off to the bathroom.
I don't really remember all the particular details of the sermon except for the end. I recounted a story about a tradition (perhaps apocryphal) that when young Jewish children first hear the Torah or first read it, they are given honey to eat. It is, so the story goes, to remind them of the sweetness of Scripture. So I preached my sermon and finished with a reading of Scripture. I then moved down to the floor where I had arranged a table with two or three jars of honey and some plastic spoons. That day, instead of an invitation hymn or prayer or announcements I simply invited the congregation to silently walk forward when they were ready. One by one they came forward and received a single spoonful of honey–pure, sweet, glorious, raw honey. It was a beautiful moment.
It was one of the best sermons I ever preached and easily one of the few, without referring to my journals, that I remember. It was a stroke of genius.
One time I went to hear a friend preach. He had just taken a position with a new congregation and it was his first sermon. I don't remember all that much about what he preached that day or what passages of Scripture he used, but I do remember that at all of us in the room had been supplied with a small can of PlayDoh! and that at some point he had us take the PlayDoh! from its can and work it with our hands. He said, "mold the PlayDoh! into the shape of what you think you would like to be or do with your life." I remember that as I shaped PlayDoh! and created a dream, so I can give that dream to God and allow him to shape me into something he can also use. It was a brilliant idea.
Leonard Sweet has written a large book about preaching. This is a thick book both in overall content and sheer girth: 369 pages (about 1/10 is reserved for end notes) and I only read an e-book on my Nook. To be sure, 369 pages was too many in my opinion for the very fact that at the end of the day, as Sweet himself notes, metaphors tend to break apart. In the case of Giving Blood there was simply too much repetition and, in my opinion, he stretched the metaphor too far. Less is more and I think in this case the sheer volume and density of words was kind of overwhelming. Couple this with one of my pet-peeves, unbalanced chapters, and you end up with a lopsided book that despite the beauty of the metaphor was rather tedious (I was actually sick of the word 'narraphor' by page 50.) I really dislike when one chapter is 30 pages and another is 5. It's a personal thing, but there were times when I was convinced Sweet could have lopped off about 50% of a chapter and still made his point.
That being said, the metaphor is beautiful and I agree with a great portion of what Sweet wrote. Preaching is, to me, exactly what Sweet calls it: giving blood. And unless a person has stood in the pulpit and preached a sermon, or spent time in the study during the week preparing (bleeding), or stayed up late on a Saturday night because there were simply no words, then they will not ever understand what Sweet means by giving blood. Any preacher worth his salt does these very things. Then on Sunday mornings he or she has the audacity to stand up before people who expect a miracle and lay out their heart and mind and soul in mere words. People expect all their problems solved, all their questions answered, all their wounds balmed, and all their sins forgiven. Yet the preacher is tasked with standing and proclaiming the word of God to a people who will not listen and who will forget every single word by the time they cross the threshold of the back door.
Preachers give blood. And if preachers do not give blood, then perhaps they need to review if it is preaching they are actually doing. This is what we do week after week, in season and out, in good times and bad: we keep coming back for more because that is what we do. We preach. We cannot help ourselves. From near the conclusion of the book he writes:
Do you bleed over every sermon? Do you give blood through every sermon? Preaching is the discipline and craft of giving blood. (330)
It's true. Preaching takes years off our lives because we put our life into every jot and tittle we scratch across the paper.
I think the best parts of the book were found in the 'Labs' and the 'Interactives.' These were short sections at the end of chapters where Sweet applied his principles to a passage of Scripture (e.g., Jonah) or shared some ideas or exercises for how to put into practice the subject matter of the preceding chapter. Of these two, I liked the labs the best. I especially enjoyed his various readings of the book of Jonah. I recall one time I preached a sermon from Luke 15 and the Parable of the Prodigal Son. That morning I didn't so much preach a sermon, but offered four different readings of the parable. That is, I told the story from four different perspectives–the father, the son, the older brother, and as a disinterested bystander. It was a lot of fun to see the anguished faces of the olders among us that morning as I 'tore apart the sacred story.' I still smile because for me it was enlightening and exhilarating to see the story from other perspectives than the same one I had always used.
I think this is the gist of this book. Preachers are called to bring the living word to life among dead and dying people. We will never do this if the people are bored. And we will not awaken them if the way we preach does nothing to spark their curiosity and arouse their suspicion. This is what I loved doing when I preached and why I waited until the last possible minute to script my sermons. I didn't want to know what I was going to say until it was time to say it. One time I preached a funeral sermon with nothing but my heart. No notes. No Bible. No nothing. I just poured out words and prayed that the Holy Spirit would do something with them. Sweet is absolutely correct that a lot of preachers tend to be rather boring. I think so boring even the devil won't hang around because the preacher is doing all his work for him by keeping the people sedated.
Sermons need life but if the preacher doesn't care, I can't imagine the Spirit does. What is the Living Word in the hands of a dead man?
One time I preached a sermon about Jesus' crucifixion. I don't recall all the specifics of the sermon, but I recall the conclusion. Sometime in the weeks leading up to the sermon me and one of the deacons had taken apart an old piano that was no longer in good repair. While doing so, we came across a large hunk of wood inside the old instrument. I'm not sure what purpose it served, but I do know that it probably contributed considerably to the weight of the piano. It must have weighed 150 pounds. It was solid. As soon as I saw it I was reminded of what may have been the crossbeam of the cross of Jesus.
Before the morning worship began that day, I had arrived early and strategically placed the 'crossbeam' in the middle of the sanctuary. I had also supplied a few hammers and scattered a large supply of heavy nails on the floor. After the conclusion of the sermon, I said something to the effect of 'we have all had a part in nailing Jesus to the cross.' I then invited the congregation to come to the center where the patibulum was located and pound a nail into it. I was amazed that everyone there participated. I kept the crossbeam in my office until I eventually left the church as a reminder of what we, the entire congregation, had said that day about our relationship with Jesus.
It's not so much, then, that Sweet is offering us a new paradigm for preaching or homiletics. He is simply putting down on paper what some of us had discovered a long time ago: images work because we all learn in different ways. In education we call this the 'theory of multiple intelligences.' I have a suspicion that we never really grow out of our particular intelligence for learning. That is, if I am a kinesthetic learner as a 10 year old, perhaps I will still be such when I am 20. It doesn't mean I cannot develop other ways of learning, but it does mean that perhaps I will always lean in one direction more than another. And perhaps–and here I agree with Sweet even if he says it more implicitly than explicitly–preachers need to take a long hard look at the way 'preaching' was conducted in the Bible and become more like those fellas who laid on their side for a year or cooked their food with feces than those guys who ramble on and on and on for years without end demonstrating to all the futility of a well mannered discourse to someone who learns by doing.
I'm sure a twelve year sermon from Romans is fantastic. But I'm sure it is also profoundly boring to most.
I think this is why God had the prophets in the Old Testament do some really strange things in order to get the attention of the people and why the Spirit animated the disciples so wildly on the Day of Pentecost that people thought they were drunk. Maybe we need to open ourselves to the Spirit. So maybe preachers can abandon, to an extent, the 'stand up and lecture people about what they should believe' style of preaching and instead adopt a way of preaching that illustrates ways of believing, ways of growing up in Resurrection life, ways of being a follower of Jesus. You know, let the living word live inside us and bring the Word to life among us.
I read an e-book version of Giving Blood obtained through NetGalley for review purposes, but I will purchase this book so I can give it more attention with my pen. Although I think the book is a little longer than it needs to be, I still recommend it. I would say give it to a younger preacher, but I think a lot of younger preachers already get this. I'd say give it to an older preacher who will either read it and change or who will laugh at you and prove why his ministry/congregation is ineffective.
A long time ago, when I was studying Hebrews for the first or second time, I 'discovered' a way to understand the book that has stuck with me and continues to provide guidance. Now I don't know if the author was writing to answer questions posed to him or what the circumstances were, but this theological book–weighty as any in the New Testament–provides us with a healthy and robust portrait of Jesus, the Son of God, who is our salvation.
So about this way of reading Hebrews. The pattern is very easy to see and very easy to understand:
- The author introduces a subject or a topic that he feels needs to be addressed. So, for example, 1:1-4 and the revelation of Jesus as God's son and his supremacy over the angels.
- The author continues by demonstrating from the Old Testament Scriptures the point he has just introduced. So, for example, 1:5-14 where he shows us that Jesus is far superior in every way imaginable to the angelic host.
- The author provides his readers with an application of a sort at the end of each section usually marked off by the word 'therefore.' So, for example, the 'end' of chapter 1:1-14 is actually chapter 2:1-4 where we see the 'therefore.'
- This pattern repeats itself over and over again in the book of Hebrews and helps make the boo much easier to understand.
Therefore, if 1:1-14 is about Jesus, about his perfect reflection of the invisible God, and his ultimate supremacy over the angelic beings then what is the conclusion the author comes to and wants us to understand? That is, what is the practical application of 1:1-14?
Therefore, we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard lest we drift away from it.
The practical application is that we need to pay attention to what we have heard–not to what Howard Marshall calls 'lesser messengers' whether those 'lesser messengers' are angelic beings or otherwise. Or maybe he's concerned about a 'lesser message.' I think the lesser message is easy to spot even if the lesser messengers are not–and believe me when I say that lesser messages abound in our culture. Jesus warned us that many would come claiming this or that or saying 'look there he is' when there he's not (Matthew 24-25). And interestingly enough, Jesus' message in Matthew 24-25 is just about the same as it is here in Hebrews 2:1-4: Pay attention or you will be deceived. It is possible, suggests the author, to 'drift' away and not even know it. We sit content in our boat and before long we are 100 yards from shore and we can't explain how it happened.
I think the real application here is this: if we are not diligent we will drift away from salvation. God has confirmed his message about Jesus through signs and wonders and miracles. This is how the message was confirmed to us. This is the message of the apostles, this is the message about Jesus. The point of the author of Hebrews is that there is one message about Jesus and if we are not diligent and careful to pay close attention to what 'God has spoken to us in these last days by his Son' we will most assuredly drift away from our salvation.
So what? I think this means that we need to constantly be evaluating what we hear. Too many Christians are content to take in everything they hear unfiltered. And what has happened is that the church ends up being led off in directions never intended and individual christians end up being led off in directions they aren't even aware are leading them further and further away from Jesus. So we must pay attention to what we heard lest we drift away. We must pay attention lest our salvation become tainted or corrupt or at least impotent.
And it seems to me that this Gospel message is found in these first 14 verses of the letter to the Hebrews–God spoke through Jesus, Jesus is the appointed heir of all things, Jesus is the Creator; Jesus is God's radiance and sustainer of the world; Jesus is the atonement for our sins; Jesus is the rightful king of the Majesty of heaven, the Kingdom of God, who will reign in righteousness.
And no one, not even an angel from heaven, can make those claims. Only Jesus.
There's probably more to say about this than I am getting at right now and perhaps I will say more later. For introductory purposes, I hope this provides a good start.
I'm spending the month of May reading through the entire New Testament and I am now finished with the book of Acts (actually finished a couple of days ago). When I was reading it I came to chapters 13-16 where I saw something I had either not noticed or not paid attention to in past readings: grace. See it with me: 13:43, Paul and Barnabas urged the church to 'continue in the grace of God'; 14:3, Paul and Barnabas 'spoke boldly for the Lord who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to perform signs and wonders'; 14:26, we learn Paul and Barnabas went back to Antioch where they had been 'committed to grace of God'; 15:11, 'We believe it is through the grace of the Lord Jesus that we are saved…'; 15:40, Paul and Silas were 'commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord.'
I like that they are not ordained into 'ministry' but to grace. They are not committed to missions but to grace. They are not commended to good works but to grace. They are not preaching growth, but grace. Their message is not of self-improvement, but grace. They are not to continue in spiritual disciplines, but in grace. Maybe one of the reasons we see our message so often confirmed by mere growth instead of by signs and wonders is because we preach a message other than grace? (14:3). This is a serious church problem: we preach more for results than we do for God to come among us and shred us with his power. I have little use for results, and we live in a results oriented church culture. And often we use the book of Acts to prove it when we point to times when God added 3000 to their number, or the number grew to 5000, and things like that.
What we fail to remember is that God was moving among them and empowering them. I think it's because they preached grace not because they were looking for results. There was no strategy for growth, no delineation of demographics, no plan for prosperity–it was just the clear, intentional, and deliberate preaching of the Gospel of God's grace to people who were broken and beaten down by life and by a religion that afforded no room for error or reconciliation. I think we do much the same in today's church. Our message is not one of 'comfort, comfort for my people', it's one of follow all the rules and you get to go to heaven.
I swear half the time people in churches do not even know what they are getting saved from or for so consumed are they with the mere idea of some vague notion of heaven. But grace–grace is always a fresh message, always a word of power, and always a welcome sermon to a people broken and beaten down in this world by sin, poverty, suffering, and hurt. Grace is a balm for our pain and how can we preach anything less in this world?
I am, and have been, reading Mere Churchianity by the late Michael Spencer, aka the Internet Monk. I really do not think it is possible at this point to write how much I love this book. Michael had a way with words and it continued in this book.
The funny thing about the world is what the church is and what the church does. Churches are strange creatures and, likely, more often reflect the character of the preacher than that of the Head, Jesus. Frankly, I do not know which I dislike more: the church or preachers. Having been a preacher myself for the better part of fifteen years I am erring on the side of caution and disliking the church more.
Preachers are not far behind though.
There’s a relatively new congregation in my community. They are putting the finishing touches on a nice, shiny new building. They are also having a big fair to attract new people–I’m assuming children who will be brought by their screaming parents. Whatever.
I know of another church that proudly announced on its marquee: New Contemporary Service–as if that is the honey needed for the flies. Whatever.
I know another church that, now that there’s a healthy and substantial flow of cash, is fixing a hole in a roof–as if fixing a hole in a roof will suddenly convert the world to Jesus. Whatever.
I can be critical of the church now–as if I was soft on it before. I haven’t had a church home for nearly a year. I’m not altogether happy about that; nor I am altogether sad either. Like I said, church is a funny thing and laying low for a while has given me an opportunity to spy. I’m not so sure I like Big Church (as in Big Oil, Big Money). Church is way too much of a chore, far too much aggravation, and not nearly enough of what I am looking for. That’s not arrogance; that’s reality. What I’m looking for is a church that has a big sign out front that simply says: Friends of Jesus, Friends of People. Welcome.
Here’s what Michael Spencer wrote, “There is little need for large churches stuffed with satisfied audiences. There is a great need for a movement of disciples going into the overlooked places of the world to see and serve the Kingdom of God” (101). I could not possibly agree more. But this will not be the experience of the church so long as the church is comfortable inside itself.
For far too many people church is what we do on Sunday with little regard for actual discipleship created by Jesus. Comfort is the key. The role of the preacher, at least so far as I can see, is to preach the world of God with such power of the Spirit that the comfortable people become agitated and the agitated people are comforted. The Scripture is, after all, a double-edged sword.
I’m still looking for a church that is all about Jesus–by that I mean, of course, that there is a deliberate focus on what Jesus is doing, who Jesus is, and how these two things collaborate and inform, shape and conform, empower and reform the steps we take as disciples of Jesus. I’m looking for a church that is not satisfied.
I am not looking for a church that ‘meets my needs.’ Only Jesus can meet my needs. I’m not looking for a church where I can get helpful hints for living a better life or having a better marriage or anything of that sort. I’m looking for a church where Jesus is the first and last word each week and where Jesus is the substance we meet in the middle. I’m looking for a church where the preacher insists and expects that I open my Bible when the Scripture is read. I’m looking for a church where the preacher, the elders, the communion, the worship–everything–says, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” When I go to church I do not need to see myself, I need to see Jesus.
Well maybe I’m going on too much about this. It’s easy to be critical of the church and terribly difficult to jump in and be so much a part of the church that these complaints are overwhelmed with love. The church cannot be what I want the church to be, the church can only be what the church is and is becoming by the grace of God. And in this I believe is the lesson Jesus has been teaching me for the past year: love the church regardless of what the church may appear to be in your myopic vision. Love the church like Jesus does.
Simply put, what the church doesn’t need is me and all my bitterness, whatevers, and criticism. What the church needs is Jesus.
Preaching is defined not by those who listen, but by the One who calls us to preach. Eugene Peterson said in an interview the following:
You have to go back a step and ask, “Why am I a pastor? What is my primary responsibility to this congregation?”The most important thing a pastor does is stand in a pulpit every Sunday and say, “Let us worship God.” If that ceases to be the primary thing I do in terms of my energy, my imagination, and the way I structure my life, then I no longer function as a pastor. I pick up some other identity. I cannot fail to call the congregation to worship God, to listen to his Word, to offer themselves to God. Worship becomes a place where we have our lives redefined for us. If we’re no longer operating out of that redefinition, the pastoral job is hopeless. Or if not hopeless, it becomes a defection. We join the enemy. We’ve quit our basic work.
Peterson goes on to say: (The questions in boldface are asked by the interviewer. Part 2.)
Most pastors I know would say that worship is critical and Sunday is very important to them. How could they begin to move away from that?
The defection starts subtly in what you do when people are not asking you to do anything. After three or four years in ministry, you realize that nobody is asking you to pray, and they are asking you to do a lot of other things, so prayer starts to erode.
Then study starts to erode. You cannot go to a pulpit week after week and preach truth accurately without constant study. Our minds blur on us, and we need that constant sharpening of our minds. And without study, without the use of our mind in a disciplined way, we are sitting ducks for the culture. This culture is an evil culture. This culture is the enemy. Through the media, through friends, through conversations we’re constantly fed lies, and like most lies, they’re 90 percent the truth. So you swallow the lie, and subtly, the edge of the gospel is blunted; you think you’re preaching the gospel, and you’re not. You don’t even know it.
So the first task in providing pastoral care is to pray and to study the Word
Who’s going to do that except the pastor? People in the congregation are busy in their jobs, reading their periodicals and attending their conferences. It’s my job to be suspicious of the culture. I’m not a culture critic, but to be a pastor, I cannot be seduced by the world. This becomes increasingly difficult in this so-called postmodern time. If you’re not sharp, you’re on the Devil’s side without knowing it.
A student was telling me he saw a video on Michael Jordan. He said, “Michael Jordan looks so lazy. He looks like he’s not doing anything. Then suddenly, he’s through three people, and he’s slam-dunking the ball.” As a pastor, how do you slip through the opposition and make your point? You do it by being lazy—or what looks like being lazy—sitting in your study for half a day reading a book that doesn’t have anything to do with your sermon. As a pastor I’ve got a responsibility to be alert to my culture so that my congregation is not seduced. If I don’t do it, nobody will.
Most congregations don’t think they’re paying pastors to do that.
That’s true. But they’re not the ones who give me my job description. I get my job description from the Scriptures, from my ordination vows. If I let the congregation decide what I’m going to do, I’m as bad as a doctor who prescribes drugs on request. Medical societies throw out doctors for doing that kind of thing; we need theological societies to throw out pastors for doing the same thing. And if you give up prayer and study, you will soon give up the third area: people.
Now here is Piper on that subject of preaching and the church.
Here’s the written version of Piper’s words in part:
Preaching is not the totality of the church. And if all you have is preaching, you don’t have the church. A church is a body of people who minister to each other.
One of the purposes of preaching is to equip us for that and inspire us to love each other better.
But God has created the church so that she flourishes through preaching. That’s why Paul gave young pastor Timothy one of the most serious, exalted charges in all the Bible in 2 Timothy 4:1-2:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word.
That’s the call. That is preaching.
Here is my second installment of study notes for this week’s lectionary readings. This one focuses on Acts 4:5-12. The study focuses on the Spirit’s role, the Name, and the Exclusivity. Quotes from William Willimon, Richard Philips, John Stott, Robert Tannehill, LJ Olgivie, DA Carson, Eugene Peterson, Aijith Fernando, Mark Driscoll, and more. There are 13 pages worth of notes, quotes, and commentary. There is Here’s an excerpt:
The leaders seemed to think that the church was no threat until the church started preaching in Jesus’ name. The world can safely ignore the church until we start making such exclusive claims about Jesus. The church is beside the point until Jesus is brought into the conversation. That is when the world begins to act in opposition. As long as the church is merely a glorified, so to speak, social services or dr phil, the world has no problem with us. It’s that pesky Name; that pesky Jesus whom the world crucified—But God resurrected! God issued his verdict on Jesus and God’s verdict on Jesus ran and runs contrary to the world’s verdict on Jesus. Thus, the world is in opposition.
Acts 4:5-12, The Name of Jesus, May 3, 2009
UPDATE: Access complete sermon mansucipt: No Other Name
Or download the MS Word manuscript here from box.net; formatted for your convenience.
There is no other Name given by which men must be saved. What else on earth could possibly be of interest to the church but the Name of Jesus? Have we lost our nerve? Have we grown weary of the Name? Have we lost interest in the Name above all Names? Have we tired of the Name at which every knee will bow and every tongue confess? Do we think that people will be more interested in us if we preach something different or something softer or something more compelling or something more interesting?
This is the third in a series of preliminary sermons I have preached from the book of Hebrews during Lent. You can download the manuscripts at my box.net (I have provided the links.) I will be preaching through the entire book starting in May 2009.
Sermon one is: Listening to and Thinking about Jesus
Sermon two is: Resting in and Holding Fast to Faith
Sermon three is: Growing in Jesus and our Understanding of His Work
Sunday, March 15, 2009 (PM)
The Imperatives of Hebrews, 3
The Book of Hebrews
This past Wednesday evening we talked for a few minutes about Matthew 24-25 and Jesus’ long answer to the disciples question, ‘when will it happen, what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?’ So the disciples essentially asked three questions.
When will ‘it’ happen is the first question they ask. By this I assume the ‘it’ refers to the statement Jesus made ‘Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’
The other two questions they ask seemingly come out of nowhere and yet, for some reason, the disciples must have associated the ‘it’ with the ‘coming’ and the ‘end.’ And it certainly appears that Jesus was not averse to answering all three questions as if they were related to one another even if we happen to be somewhat confused about why they would associate the ‘coming’ and the ‘end’ with the ‘it.’
Well, I’m revisiting that conversation from Wednesday evening so that I can bring up an article that I also made more than a passing reference to. In his essay The Coming Evangelical Collapse [you can find this by searching at Christian Science Monitor–jerry] blogger Michael Spencer wrote:
We are on the verge – within 10 years – of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity. This breakdown will follow the deterioration of the mainline Protestant world and it will fundamentally alter the religious and cultural environment in the West.
Within two generations, evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its occupants. (Between 25 and 35 percent of Americans today are Evangelicals.) In the “Protestant” 20th century, Evangelicals flourished. But they will soon be living in a very secular and religiously antagonistic 21st century.
This collapse will herald the arrival of an anti-Christian chapter of the post-Christian West. Intolerance of Christianity will rise to levels many of us have not believed possible in our lifetimes, and public policy will become hostile toward evangelical Christianity, seeing it as the opponent of the common good.
Millions of Evangelicals will quit. Thousands of ministries will end. Christian media will be reduced, if not eliminated. Many Christian schools will go into rapid decline. I’m convinced the grace and mission of God will reach to the ends of the earth. But the end of evangelicalism as we know it is close.
I have a friend who is skeptical of Mr Spencer’s claims. I think I told you Wednesday that I don’t particularly care one way or another about the collapse of a major, in my opinion defunct and corrupt political institution; I do care about the local church.
Then yesterday I got a couple of books in the mail. I glanced through the first couple pages of one book because the forward is written by my hero Eugene Peterson. When he writes, I read. He wrote, then, in the book Christianity Beyond Belief: Following Jesus for the Sake of Others, words very similar to those of Mr Spencer:
We live in a country that is becoming less and less Christian by the day. People who make a living compiling statistics on these kinds of things tell us that we have an epidemic of people leaving the church. Recently I was told that one of these pollsters has concluded that nonbelievers are the fastest growing ‘faith’ group in America. The alarm has been sounded and panic is widespread. There is considerable finger-pointing at the failure of the church to stanch the hemorrhage of membership. (9)
We can deduce, from these two readings, that there is a significant problem with the church in America. Frankly, I think the damage is done and there is very little that can be done to stop the bleeding on a national level. With some giving us ten years and others suggesting that it has already come upon us, who knows what the next step really is.
Here is where the book of Hebrews, I believe, makes strong inroads into the wound that we have undoubtedly been the cause of. I shudder to think what the church would be like if the Gospel hadn’t been so watered down in a previous generation. But the very thing that the church thought was its measure of success, was actually its very undoing. Thus it seems the church thought it could afford to scale back on the things that the Gospel seems to suggest we most certainly cannot afford to scale back on-such things as, Gospel content, the faith once delivered, core doctrines, and foundational beliefs.
But I submit to you that we have allowed certain aspects to become so watered down and we have paid such close attention to those who would undo the Gospel with skepticism and lies that we have no foundation upon which to stand. This is why I am fond of saying that once Genesis 1:1 is done away with, nothing else really matters. Genesis 1:1 is foundational. You can say, Genesis through Deuteronomy is the Bible and everything else is commentary. But you get my point, once we have reduced the stories to mere local myth, upon what will we stand?
Into this the author of Hebrews has insisted on an allegiance to those very stories ‘we have heard’ in order to prevent the very thing that Spencer and Peterson (among others) warn us of. If we fail to listen, fail to pay attention, fail to hold on to the faith we once confessed, we will drift away; slowly, but surely. Or we will ‘fall short’ of the intended and expected goal. And how, in chapter 6, as we encounter our 5th ‘imperative’, we see that the results might be even more disastrous.
5. The fifth marker found along the way is in chapter 6, verse 1: “Therefore, let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity…”
Well, the first thing that stands out to me about this passage is that if there are ‘elementary teachings’ there must be elementary teachers. It seems to me that there must have been teachers in the church who were content to continue wrangling over the same foundational teachings over and over again. Well, don’t misunderstand, I think it is terribly important for there to be foundational teachings in the church. I also believe we should revisit those teachings periodically in order that we don’t forget (‘listen to’) what we have been taught. But I also think it incredibly naïve to think we can stay in those places. Why? Because then we never mature.
And so the author here says something like this: You are babes. You are stuck on milk and cereal. You need to be teachers now, but in fact you are still itty-bittys when it comes to the faith. I can’t even begin to teach you about meat, and righteousness, and the High Priesthood of Jesus Christ. You haven’t constantly trained yourselves in the Word so as to be able to sufficiently tell the difference between good and evil. Listen to The Message translation of chapter 5:11-6:3:
I have a lot more to say about this, but it is hard to get it across to you since you’ve picked up this bad habit of not listening. By this time you ought to be teachers yourselves, yet here I find you need someone to sit down with you and go over the basics on God again, starting from square one-baby’s milk, when you should have been on solid food long ago! Milk is for beginners, inexperienced in God’s ways; solid food is for the mature, who have some practice in telling right from wrong.
1-3So come on, let’s leave the preschool fingerpainting exercises on Christ and get on with the grand work of art. Grow up in Christ. The basic foundational truths are in place: turning your back on “salvation by self-help” and turning in trust toward God; baptismal instructions; laying on of hands; resurrection of the dead; eternal judgment. God helping us, we’ll stay true to all that. But there’s so much more. Let’s get on with it!
The gist of what the author of Hebrews is saying is this: We need to grow up in Christ and to do this we must progress in our learning and understanding of the work that He did. What happens if we don’t grow up? Look at verse 6: “…and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.:” Now I’m not going to unpack all that because for now it is enough to say that the person who refuses to grow up will eventually ‘fall away.’ This is no mere ‘drifting away.’ This could mean ‘to commit apostasy.’ It is, at minimum, a radical departure from the faith.
I have been noticing for a while that a series of sermons I posted here, The Church in Exile: The Book of Daniel, has been getting a lot of hits and downloads at my box.net account. This inspired me to share with you a lengthy series of sermons I did (18 in total, but I’m missing one) that coincided with a series of devotionals I posted here (90 Days with Jesus: John). I have also posted the Bible school lessons that went with this series as well. Here, then, are the sermons linked to my box.net account and free for download. Thanks for stopping by. jerry
The Sermon Schedule: John’s Gospel
1. The Word Became Flesh, and Dwelt Among us, John 1:1-18
2. Behold Jesus, John 1:19-51
3. The One From Above, John 3:22-36
4. Difficulty of Believing in Jesus, John 6:1-71
5. From Whence Comes a Prophet?, John 7:1-52
6. The Children of Abraham, John 8:31-59
7. On Restoring and Taking Sight, John 9:1-41
8. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, John 10:1-42
9. The Death of Jesus in His Own Words, John 12:20-36
10. A New Command He Gave Us, John 13:1-38
11. While We Anticipate His Return, John 14:1-31
12. Very Simply Put: Stay There, John 15:1-16:4
13. Resting in His Victory, John 16:5-33
14. The Priorities of Jesus in His High Priestly Prayer, John 17:1-26
15. Not Him! Give us Barabbas! John 18:1-40
16. Jesus is Crucified, John 19:1-42
17. Jesus is Resurrected, John 20:1-31
18. Jesus’ Mission Clarified, John 21:1-25
(I am currently missing the sermon on John 20. Once it has been retyped and saved, I will add it.)
If the links stop working or are wrong, please tell me via email or as a comment in the comment thread. These are here to help with illustrative material, exegetical points, and homiletical ideas. I don’t care how you use them, short of publishing them as your own, and you should do your own exegetical work. I wrote these three years ago so some illustrations might be dated and some of the exegesis I might disown now–I have learned quite a lot since I originally preached these. 🙂 Nevertheless, I think they might help you and if they do, I praise God alone. Please, however, these are not meant to replace your own diligence in the study.